In Rat Queen Theatre Company’s Judy Doomed Us All, an impending tornado has trapped Nancy Reagan in a Kansas town. You might expect the former First Lady to be out of touch with her midwestern constituents and, in the script by Molly Bicks, Carsen Joenk, Raquel Loving, and Reed Northrup, she is. But populating their fictional Diamond City with this gender- and race-diverse company from Brooklyn adds another layer to the lives of these rural misfits and their interactions with the Lady in Red, for better and worse.
Rat Queen’s ensemble is filled with the kind of diversity we look for in the theatre. The actors’ program bios place gender identity in the foreground amongst a snapshot of the work they strive to make. On the whole, they’re a talented group and have created a play with original music that seeks to drop a villainous character in a situation that can both inform and humanize her, while never saying, “Nancy Reagan wasn’t so bad.”
The Reagan administration’s policies negatively affected the communities of most of Rat Queen’s actors/creators thirty years ago and, once again, we have a president who is operating in a similar fashion. Judy Doomed Us All is not about politics, though. The play puts all the political talk on Scarecrow (Bicks), an anarchist/conspiracist and the other characters are constantly telling Scarecrow to calm down and shut up. The play is more concerned with the titular Judy (Mukta Phatak), a twelve year old girl who doesn’t fit in and wants to befriend Nancy.
Though the script specifies that several roles are to be played by gender non-conforming and noncis actors, the characters’ gender identy is not central to the storytelling. It’s here that the point of Judy Doomed Us All is obscured–why are the characters so diverse if not to confront a woman who would have rejected them all? If the tornado is a device to force Nancy to face the people she doesn’t want to speak to, why does the play so actively keep that from happening? When Scarecrow does eventually encounter Nancy, drinks are thrown and Scarecrow is ejected from the bar, to the other characters’ relief.
Nancy has brought along her speechwriter, Anthony Dolan (Simon Henriques), an awkward white man who’s like a nice version of Jonah Ryan from Veep. Dolan immerses himself in the town culture while Nancy stays secluded in her hotel room. He falls in love with Dorothy (Anteus Mathieu), a queer and trans person of color and, at no point, does Dolan remark on this. He is presented as a stuffy, repressed, straight white guy and the play avoids his ever acknowledging that he has fallen for someone so outside his sphere. If the play is not about these Washington outsiders learning to see the beauty of the country outside their insular, hetero, white world, what is the reason for telling these stories?
Dolan has a monologue where he tells the residents of Diamond City that their town “makes [him] want to buy a dog”, “start ballroom dancing”, and “ride a ferris wheel.” These are quaint, small town activities that people in Kansas would inspire you to do if it were not these people in Kansas. These are not folksy types. Who is he talking about?
Judy Doomed Us All doesn’t allow the possibilities of the script’s created circumstances to play out. It follows a straightforward narrative about a girl everyone thinks is weird seeking acknowledgement from a celebrity to forget about how her family and friends pass her over. That’s not what’s lurking within the play’s confines. Telling the story of Judy does not require Nancy Reagan to be present–it could be any famous person. By letting the play be about something other than the Reagans’ policies and opinions, but putting groups of people they’ve demonized right in front of her, it sets up a weird gap between what the characters should be saying and what they actually do say. I wanted to hear about the lives of these LGBTQ+, multi-racial characters. Those are the stories I care about and the stories that I wish these talented artists had put on stage.